This chemical, found in the flesh and seeds of chili peppers, can put a sizzle in a cold January day.
Capsaicin-producing peppers originated in Bolivia and parts of Brazil. They were spread throughout the Americas by birds. Today, there are a wide range of slightly more enlightened industrial uses for capsaicin. It’s what puts the punch in pepper spray, of course. And marine coatings are being developed using capsaicin as an environmentally safe means of deterring barnacle growth.
Capsaicin is used in repellent sprays to protect gardens from mammalian pests–birds are not affected by the chemical. Capsaicin stimulates circulation, prompts pain receptor cells to release endorphins, and is used in various analgesic formulations for arthritis and other types of pain.
The most storied laboratory work on capsaicin was done by Wilbur Scoville, who in 1912 convened a panel of pepper tasters who rated the heat of different peppers. In an effort, perhaps, to underline the intense pain caused by the hottest peppers, Scoville decided to base his scale on pure capsaicin at 16 million Scoville units. Scoville’s system is dismissed as highly subjective by scientists, but it is the preferred means of ranking pepper heat by chili lovers.
Pure capsaicin will, in fact, make your lips swell–or worse. Chemists handling it must wear full-body protection and work in a filtered toxic-substance lab room. There are actually sites on the Internet that explain how to distill it. You need a lot of peppers and a lot of harsh solvent to get just a little bit of capsaicin. DeWitt says he tracks down the sources of these instructions, hoping to convince them to remove the how-to from the Web, because the process and end result are both extremely dangerous.
Capsaicin in nature, however, never really hurt anyone–500,000 Scoville units is way less than 16 million Scoville units. Chili peppers are, in fact, a good source of vitamins A, C, and E. They are rich in folic acid and potassium, and low in calories and sodium, with no carbohydrates. They also deliver an endorphin rush similar to that produced by the body after a good jog. And, according to DeWitt, there is anecdotal evidence that certain peppers can produce a heightened state of consciousness.
Visit “What’s That Stuff” to learn more about capsaicin.
Excerpted with permission, Chemical & Engineering News
Copyright © 2003 American Chemical Society